Editor's Note Winter 2010
Written onDecember 01 , 2009
Vermont is facing many challenges when it comes to local meat production: Grazing land is expensive, there aren’t enough facilities in which to process animals, and many residents refrain from buying local meat because they don’t know how to cook the unusual cuts sold by small farms. What exactly do you do with a pork loin or lamb shoulder?
Yet as the articles in this special issue point out, some Vermonters are thinking deeply about this vast food category that doesn’t encompass what our state is famous for—milk and maple—or the familiar vegetables at our farmers’ markets. In these pages, we introduce you to folks hoping to turn unwanted dairy cows into local beef (page 17); farmers who are raising unusual breeds of meat animals (pages 6 and 27); and butchers who are using grant money to improve their services (page 8).
The challenges mentioned above are steep, but I’ve often thought there’s another, more subtle problem facing local meat production. It has to do with the word slaughter. We inevitably have to use it when we’re talking about where our meat comes from. But isn’t it unpleasant? Doesn’t it make you not want to talk about meat? Sometimes I have to use it when people ask me what I do (“Well, part of my work involves writing about people’s efforts to raise and slaughter farm animals humanely.”) With a polite “Oh…” they deftly change the subject.
At some point the word slaughter, Scandinavian in origin, came to mean more than just “the butchering of animals for meat” but also “mass killing,” “bloodshed,” “barbarism,” “carnage.” Yet in Vermont, where farm animals have .their lives ended in small-scale slaughterhouses or on the farm itself, slaughtering, in the unpleasant sense of the word, is not what’s happening. Sure, it’s not pretty (and in rare cases, rogue slaughterhouse employees do abuse animals; Bushway Packing in Grand Isle is accused of such), but there’s no barbarism. What is happening, plain and simple, is that animals are being killed swiftly for their meat.
Some would say killing isn’t a pleasant word either, but at least it’s accurate. It neither horrifies the process nor sanitizes it. Often you’ll see the word processing used, but is it too far removed from what’s actually happening? At the same time, making it sound worse than it is—calling it slaughter—gives people an excuse to turn away. “I don’t want to hear about it.” That’s when cruelty is allowed to flourish. In order to make slaughterhouses humane places—both for the animals and the workers—we need to talk about what happens in them.
Other words used in local agriculture could use some examination: GMOs, terroir, and CSA risk confusing people. Organic has, to some extent, been co-opted by the federal government and some corporations. Food system sounds both complex and dull. If you can think of some words that could replace these or other agricultural terms, let us know. After all, the words that come out of our mouths often influence what we put in them.